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Lib Dem peer calls for campaign to tackle HE leadership gender gap

A Liberal Democrat peer is calling for a campaign to boost the number of female professors and vice chancellors in the UK’s universities.

Just one in five of the UK’s university professors or vice chancellors is a woman.

Baroness (Lorely) Burt, a former MP, says universities should be given targets to increase the representation of women.

“The gender split in top jobs is not as it should be in my view in HE, and perhaps we need to do as Vince Cable did when he took on the FTSE 100 companies, where now we have 26 per cent women, up from 12 per cent,” she said.

As Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Mr Cable urged the top 100 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange to improve the representation of women on their boards and threatened them with sanctions if they did not.

Speaking ahead of the Liberal Democrats Party conference in Brighton, Baroness Burt told HEi-know: “Perhaps we need a really strong encouragement on gender balance by setting a target with a threat behind it to ‘sort yourself out or we will legislate’. That worked really well. There are many excellent women in the academic world and we do not want that talent to be squandered.”

A report by the Equality Challenge Unit said 35 out of 135 (20 per cent) university vice chancellors or principals were women, while 22 per cent of professors were women.

In HE in general, it found that women were less likely to be in senior roles and overall had lower levels of pay. The study, covering 2013-14, found among academic staff, 18 per cent of men were at a senior level, compared with fewer than 8 per cent of women.

The secretary general of the University and College Union Sally Hunt said the union agreed with Baroness Burt that universities needed to redress the balance – and that this could be done “by looking at why women are not there” - and then devising action plans.

“Women’s place in academia is firmly established, but their representation at the highest levels remains disappointingly low,” she said.

“The causes need to be investigated. It is not good enough to say ‘no women applied’ or ‘we just appoint the best person for the job’ if the result of each recruitment/promotion exercise is a systematic under-representation of women in senior grades.”

Until recently, Baroness Burt’s brief at Westminster included higher education, but the government’s departmental shake-up has moved HE into the Department for Education and the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesman John Pugh MP has taken on HE.

However, having done much work on the Higher Education and Research Bill, Baroness Burt will continue to lobby on it in Parliament and beyond.

One of the main concerns for the Liberal Democrats is the government’s decision not to raise the £21,000 earnings threshold for paying back student loans, when fees are rising in line with inflation. The party is also against the idea of tuition fee levels being linked to teaching quality under the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

“We are also not happy about tying the increase to teaching quality because we think it is very hard to measure quality,” said Baroness Burt.

“If you give students an easy life this may make you popular but may not be an indication of quality of teaching... that’s not a measure of quality. Every university should be up to scratch.”

Baroness Burt says the TEF “appears to be deeply flawed in its current formation” and that a  particular concern is “that it seeks to judge universities based on the institutional wide metrics, rather than a course by course basis - that could disadvantage institutions which excel at certain key courses”.

One of the amendments the Liberal Democrats have tabled on the HE Bill is aimed at stopping universities from charging fees of £9,250 to existing students, as some have already said they will do.

“It’s totally unfair that you can start university on one fee and have it changed half way through. It’s totally unacceptable,” she said.

“In coalition we did not do that when we increased tuition fees. People who were already on their courses or about to start stayed on the old fees.”

The party has called for the progress of the Bill to be stopped because of its concerns over the future of research in UK universities following the vote for Brexit.

Baroness Burt says the party is very concerned about what happens to Horizon 2020 (the EU’s €80bn  research and innovation programme), despite assurances from the government that it would underwrite any projects which are approved by the scheme before the UK leaves the EU.

She says that does not give any guarantees for research in the medium and longer term.  

“The government has made assurances, but what is the future going to look like? Universities are very concerned, particularly about research,” she said.

“In the research field you need to look in the medium and long term. Some research takes decades. Mapping the genome took 13 years.”

The Liberal Democrats have been canvassing university vice chancellors about Brexit and also about the HE Bill. Baroness Burt says “anecdotal evidence” is that some projects which were on the verge of being signed have fallen through after “European partners started to row back”.

She said: “To us as Liberal Democrats, European projects were about working together across borders and benefitting from the international sharing of knowledge and co-operation and it’s a disaster that the British people have elected to pull out of the EU.

“Higher education is a very good example of why we should be part of Europe. What we will be pushing for as a party is to receive assurances that we will further strengthen and develop ties with Europe so that we continue to get co-operation with our EU partners.”



Baroness Burt